(Second viewing, on TV, July 2018) I have dim memories of seeing Universal Soldier on VHS back in high school, and I particularly remembered the farm-set climax. I thought it was a below-average film then, and a second viewing doesn’t necessarily improve things. Jean-Claude van Damme is a gifted physical performer (and he was near the peak of his physical form in 1992), but his career was badly damaged by a string of second-tier, nearly undistinguishable action movies. Universal Soldier manages to be a bit more memorable than the others by dint of its science-fiction high concept, having a strong antagonist (Dolph Lundgren), featuring better-than-average action direction by Roland Emmerich, and starting with a great early sequence at the Hoover Dam. Still, it doesn’t really become anything but a generic action thriller in which two muscled guys beat each other up. A tepid romance doesn’t really distinguish itself despite Ally Walker’s attempts to bring some humanity back into a superhuman film. I may remember it now because I was around and part of the film’s target audience at the time, but I didn’t exactly love it then and I can barely even tolerate it now. I suspect that without its easy narrative hook, the film would have not led to any profile-raising sequels and would be long forgotten today. Who else but van Damme fans remember near-contemporaries Double Impact or Nowhere to Run? Exactly.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) I have only seen two films directed by John Hyams (Dragon Eyes being the first one), and I’m already developing a bit of a dislike for his work. While I can appreciate his eye for good cinematography and strong action sequences, his obvious inability to deliver a coherent narrative is far more irritating than the amount of eye-candy he can deliver. Crucial narrative moments are missing, intriguing ideas are abandoned as soon as they’re raised, and nothing seems to matter as much as the camera angles that he use. While action movies (and direct-to-DVD action movies in particular) have never been too strong on story, there are basic mandatory requirements than Hyams isn’t even meeting. The plot is a muddle of enhanced-soldier stuff overlaid with rogue agents, military conspiracies, fake memories and who know what else; it’s handled so badly that it’s hard to care about any of it. While Jean-Claude van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are hyped as being “back” in the series and the film, viewers should temper their expectations and expect merely a few unconnected quasi-cameo appearances. Scott Adkins handles protagonist duties, and the best one can say is that he does not embarrass himself. The same can’t be said about Hyams, who seriously needs some adult supervision before he’s allowed to mangle another script again.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans. The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull. Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony. But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest. The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables. A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths. But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age. Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong. Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form. Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.